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Uranus response

CHID 496 – The Planets

Uranus Response Paper



It is very appropriate for our class especially that Uranus was discovered by a musician. I have heard of Herschel, but I believe only briefly because of his musical composition; interestingly enough, I had no idea that he was responsible for the discovery of Uranus. It is also rather staggering to think that it is also thanks to Hershel’s discovery that we were able to discover the other planets that lay beyond. It is good that he was such a disciplined and meticulous observer with his hobby as much as with his music, which at the time of his discovery of the new planet was his real profession.

You would think if anyone would compose music about the planets or stars that it would have been him. I wonder why he didn’t. I guess he became very engaged in his astronomical work especially after becoming famous for the discovery of Uranus.

The planet itself is interesting in that it pretty much rotates on its side, and because of this, has seasons that are very different from what we would expect to see in planets like ours which rotate “upright”. Each season is very, very long. I don’t understand, however, how it could have had impacts if it doesn’t really have a solid surface.  I wish that I understood physics more so that I could grasp how this is possible.

Given the strangeness of the planet, that it is known as “the magician” seems appropriate. Holst’s portrayal of this concept in the Uranus piece is perfectly done. The music completely embodies a magician, in my opinion. The light, quick nature of the music seems like the kind of movements a magician, who is using sleight of hand and distracting movements while he or she performs something magical right in front of your eyes, would also have. The piece doesn’t seem to have a lot of emotion to it until near the last minute of the piece. Perhaps this is indicative of the nature of magic tricks—nothing magic really happens. They are quickly over with, fun, and meaningless. However, a lot of things can go wrong if you play with “real” magic and the ending of the piece seems to hold this ominous tone.


Neptune Response Paper



It is interesting to think about how the discovery of Uranus could be considered something of an accident (simply because Herschel had not set out to find a planet), but that Neptune had been suspected of being a planet (had already been in place as a star) and that Newton’s laws were used to confirm that it was actually a planet. In times like that, one can’t help but smile that mankind managed to understand the ways of the universe well enough to predict something like that. Of course, we do so much more than that now, but it is still really awe inspiring to think about.

I never knew that Neptune had any rings. I’m surprised that I never learned that. I hadn’t known about Uranus’ rings either, though, so I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me. So much has been made of Saturn’s rings that it seems none of the other planets which have them get any mention of that at all.

Holst’s representation of the planet Neptune seems very apropos. It seems like we don’t know that much about Neptune (as with Uranus) because it’s so far away and fairly small. I’m not sure why Neptune was called “the mystic”, but this music fits that very well, and it fits what we know of the planet. Is the god Neptune known for being a mystic? I can only think of water when I think of Neptune. At any rate, the music is pleasant, but doesn’t seem to go anywhere. It is ethereal and mysterious, but lacks direction. It does sound a bit familiar and I wonder if any movies have taken this score and modified it or taken themes from it to use for their soundtracks—the opening melody is especially familiar seeming.

Is this the only one of the suite to use human voices? It adds a very eerie effect, but since that is what is being gone after (I would assume) it works well. It’s kind of haunting. I like that much of it, even if I feel the rest of it didn’t really go anywhere.




7 March 2011


At the time of Holst’s composition, very little information was known about the planet Neptune.  Apparently, Holst was less attracted by the mythology associated with the planet’s namesake, and instead chose to incorporate themes reminiscent of the planet’s astrology.  Had Holst taken Neptune the Roman god as his inspiration, the piece might have captured the violent and tempestuous nature of the sea.

Perhaps due to the lack of knowledge at the time, astronomers have associated the planet with dreams and spirituality.  In Holst’s day, Neptune stood at the edge of the solar system, the last entity before the empty vastness of space.  It is therefore not surprising that we should have attributed to the planet such otherworldly qualities.

Neptune, the Mystic, needs little interpretation.  Holst gives us a melody in the beginning and in between other ethereal sections of noise at 3:30 and again at 5:40, but always against a backdrop of ambient noise which seems to prevent us from fully latching onto the melody.  Holst’s intentional lack of percussion causes the movement to move like a wisp of smoke.  Gone are the marching melodies of Mars and Jupiter; Neptune seems not to move, it is as if we are passing it by.  The energy builds from a small flute strain and then recedes into an eerie nothingness as the choral voices fade to black.  There is no real drama here.  Somehow, this seems an appropriate theme for a place which, at Holst’s time, is practically untouched and unimaginable by human minds.  Unsurprisingly, I find strong parallels between Holst’s music, and the music of those composing for films which take place in deep space.

I have previously remarked that Holst’s music is not in keeping with the actual characteristics of the planets themselves.  I would make the same claim regarding Neptune, but as an observation and not a complaint.  Holst has never strayed far from the astronomical character of the planets, and he certainly cannot be blamed for the unavailability of factual knowledge about Neptune.  Besides, it would require a stretch of creativity and inventiveness to compose a piece for Neptune and Uranus based on the planets’ physical characteristics and yet which maintained uniqueness and individuality.  The planets are too similar.  Thus, even a modern composer benefitted by up to date observations might take recourse to the distinct astrology.

Neptune: The Mystic


Neptune is the furthest planet from the sun and was the only planet to be discovered using mathematics instead of observation.  It is nearly identical to Uranus, except for its atmosphere, which has notable weather patterns.  It even had a Great Dark Spot, similar to the Great Red Spot on Jupiter.  However, unlike the Great Red Spot, Neptune’s spot forms and dissipates once every few years.  It has been observed with different sizes and shapes, and at one point was even the same size as the Earth.  Neptune’s extremely dynamic storm systems are also noteworthy considering its winds reach speeds of close to 600 meters per second (almost supersonic)! Like Uranus, Neptune’s season lasts approximately 40 years, resulting in cloud bands that regularly increase in size.  The planet is names after the Roman god of the sea, perfectly fitting for a planet that is composed primarily of ice and is blue in appearance.  An interesting fact to point out-Neptune will complete its first full orbit since its discovery on July 12, 2011, only four months from now.

The music for Neptune is very static and one-dimensional, which seems to contradict the mythological characteristic as god of the sea.  Gustav Holst was not aiming to write music that depicted the sea, however, because in his opinion Neptune should be portrayed as mystical and whimsical.  What sets Neptune apart from the other pieces in the movement is the use of actual voices at the end of the piece to provide a first-of-its-kind fade-out ending.  At first, the women’s chorus was not distinguishable from the instruments, but upon closer listening, it was easy to hear the faint sound of the voices.  The voices sounded quite haunting, and the fact that they blended in with the music so well and were “hidden” provides a perfect “mystical” experience.  Other than that though, nothing about this piece particularly stood out, and it was a weak ending for Holst’s most famous work.




Neptune has an unusual instrumentation, with the main body of the orchestra, which is usually the focus of the audience’s attention, playing second fiddle to the melodic percussion instruments, like the celesta – an instrument I had actually never seen before and had to go look up (and then realized it is used all over the place, but that every performance I have been involved in personally had been rewritten to substitute the glockenspiel for the rare and expensive celesta). Another unusual instrumentation is the choir that sneaks in at minute 4:15. It seems rather fitting that the last, furthest instruments would become the first in a piece about the furthest planet. The choice of featuring a choir is interesting as well, the voices sliding over each other, echoed by the slides on the harps, lending an ethereal, unanchored quality to the music. I remember reading somewhere that Holst originally intended for the choir to be hidden out of view of the audience. There would have been no hiding that there was a choir once they took over the movement, but his intention was that when they first snuck in, the audience would slowly become aware of a sound that seemed to emerge from nowhere, and for a moment before they were able to identify what it was, it would create the surreal experience of a disembodied presence within the symphony hall. We can only imagine that to an audience unaware this sleight of hand was coming, the unearthly chords the choir sings at the climax of their section must have only prolonged that moment of surreality, refusing to let the audience relinquish their instinctual adrenaline and terror to the recognition of something human and familiar. It must have been a very disturbing experience to the first audience on opening night.

Little is still known about Neptune. It’s thick hydrogen-rich atmosphere makes it difficult to see beyond the uppermost cloud layers. Like with the other Jovian planets, there is believed to be no surface to speak of, but a gradual increase in density from gas to liquid to molten heavy metals. Two fascinating aspects of Neptune are that its magnetic field seems to be produced not by the planet’s core, but by the rotation of the fluid mantle, and that it has the only moon in the solar system with a retrograde orbit. Scientists can do no more than speculate on explanations for either. Until technology improves and allows us to better evaluate the planet, Neptune will remain a mystery.